Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax on Sunday appeared headed on a political collision course with a little-known state delegate from his own party who pledged to introduce articles of impeachment Monday if the 39-year-old Democrat refused to resign.
Fairfax is one of three top Virginia political leaders engulfed in an ongoing firestorm of scandal. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, also Democrats, admitted wearing blackface at parties in the 1980s, while Fairfax faced more serious accusations of sexual assault he repeatedly has denied.
Del. Patrick Hope said the state constitution “states very clearly that impeachment should be for high crimes and misdemeanors. There is no question that violent sexual assault clearly qualifies as high crime.”
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias says the House could impeach Fairfax given that the GOP seems to “perceive little downside” to it.
“If Fairfax is impeached, it remains unclear whether the Senate would convict,” Tobias told USA TODAY. “A two-thirds vote is needed, and that may depend on the evidence offered.”
Fairfax on Saturday reaffirmed his innocence and his intention to remain in office. He called for “space in this moment for due process” and for an FBI investigation. The FBI declined to comment.
Fairfax’s statement came hours after the state Democratic Party joined the chorus of calls for his resignation. Chair Susan Swecker said that in light of the “credible nature” of the latest claims against Fairfax, “it has become clear that he can no longer fulfill the duties and responsibilities of his post.”
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus has also called for Fairfax to step down.
Fairfax, who would succeed Northam if the governor resigns, was accused last week of sexual assault by a former colleague at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in 2004. Fairfax strongly denied the charges made by Vanessa Tyson, a political science professor at Scripps College in California.
Lawyers for Fairfax’s second accuser, Meredith Watson, released a statement days later saying that Fairfax raped her while they were students at Duke University in 2000. Watson also said she would be willing to testify at an impeachment hearing.
Despite the calls for his resignation, only Hope has pledged to seek impeachment. Hope is a fifth-term delegate from Arlington, among the most liberal districts in the state. Hope, a health-care lawyer and a married father of three, said that “as the father of three young girls I cannot stand by silently.”
But with just two weeks left in the legislative session and the governor also battling to keep his job, it was not clear how far Hope’s impeachment push would go.
The accusations against Fairfax came to light days after a photo surfaced from Northam’s page in a 1984 medical-school yearbook, showing a man in blackface standing by a man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit. Northam at first admitted he was in the photo, then denied it but acknowledged using blackface in impersonating Michael Jackson in a dance contest that same year.
Northam has refused widespread calls for his resignation. A poll conducted by The Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University suggested that 47 percent of Virginians want Northam to resign, while another 47 percent believe he should remain in office.
In his first interview since the scandal erupted, Northam told the Post on Saturday that he had “overreacted” by putting out a statement taking blame for the picture. He said that an “independent investigation” being conducted by Eastern Virginia Medical School is aimed at establishing the facts in the case.
Northam said he wanted to focus the rest of his term on racial equity.
‘Horrific week in Virginia’: Gov. Ralph Northam takes on blackface scandal in first interview
“This has been a real, I think, an awakening for Virginia,” he told the Post. “It has really raised the level of awareness for racial issues in Virginia. And so we’re ready to learn from our mistakes.”
Shortly after the first accusation surfaced against Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring, a 57-year-old Democrat, volunteered that he had appeared in blackface at a party at the University of Virginia in the 1980s.
Contributing: Doug Stanglin; Christal Hayes